Art And Contrast
( Originally Published 1913 )
IN the previous chapter we discussed balance and repetition as elements of composition. We have now to study another element that of contrast. This also results from a natural love of change and variety. How sick we should get of candy, if we had nothing else to eat ! how tired of sunshine, if there were never a cold or wet day to make the sun seem extra beautiful by contrast ! " Jack," as we know, " will become a dull boy," if his studies are not en-livened by play; but how worse than dull—stupid and ill-tempered--if his play were not relieved by something serious. Yes, contrast is the salt of life, without which living would be tasteless and insipid. More than this, I can hardly believe that a boy or girl can grow up to be brave and true, a really fine specimen of manhood or womanhood, unless some shadow of hardship and pain has passed over the sunny period of youth. We have to learn to take the bitter with the sweet, and it is through meeting each, as it comes along, as a part of the day's work, that we gradually build up character.
So contrast, it seems, serves two purposes in life —it adds to the pleasure of life, and it gives force and worth to character. Its effects in art are very similar. The artist employs it to give variety and at the same time character and distinction to the pattern of his compositions.
You can find out for yourselves how he does this, if you take a piece of paper, a pencil, a pair of compasses, and a straight-edge. First draw a rectangle. This is the space to be filled or developed into a composition. Now draw a vertical line up the center of it. You will admit that this is not interesting by itself ; but cut it at right angles with a horizontal line, and immediately the figure begins to have some character. Immediately, also, if you have any eye for balance—and almost everybody has—you will begin to notice that it makes a great difference at just what point the horizontal line cuts the vertical. In the first place, whether the arms of the horizontal are or are not the same length—then, at how high or how low a point on the vertical line they branch out. You can experiment with these two lines until the cross seems to you to look its best.
You could not draw anything much simpler than this figure ; and yet it is sufficient to illustrate two principles of contrast in composition—first, that the contrast is interesting, and second, that it is made more interesting, when the contrasted parts are care-fully balanced. Now take the compasses and, centering on the point of intersection of the two lines, describe a circle. The latter will introduce into the figure a still further contrast between curved and straight lines. And again your sense of balance will be brought into play. How far will you make your circle extend ? It is for you to say, because you are trying to satisfy your own feeling for what will look best. Now, as a contrast to this circle, add four smaller ones at the extremities of the cross. Next, from the center of the big circle draw radiating lines. As a last touch of contrast, suppose you draw a segment of a circle in each of the four corners of the rectangle.
By this time we have built up a composition, the pattern of which consists of contrasts. But, as I dare say you have noticed, it also consists of repetitions. And once more I will remind you that both the repetitions and the contrasts are balanced. Contrast, repetition, and balance—these are the simple elements of composition.
Our pattern or composition is a very simple form of geometric figure. If you feel disposed, you can amuse yourself by devising other kinds of simple pat-terns ; starting, for example, with a circle inside your rectangular space; or, selecting, to begin with, a circular frame and starting with a triangle or square inside of it, and in either case continuing to build up or embroider your design with additional features. In this way by varying the shape of your original frame and the character of the pattern that you put in it, you can go on indefinitely inventing designs. All these, I want you to observe, are geometric in character. They are based upon the figures which you find in geometry—the square, rectangle, triangle, and circle.
Now just as the acorn may in time become the great oak tree, so this simple basis of geometric design is at the root of the compositions of the great Italian pictures and of thousands of other pictures, even to our own day. Their compositions are based upon a geometric plan. The only difference is that your plan is clearly visible, while theirs is more or less disguised. The reason is that they do not fill their spaces, as you did, with simple lines, but with forms—figures, columns, buildings, draperies, trees, hills, and so on. Consequently, when we speak of the "lines " of their compositions, we often mean rather the direction which the figure, or the object whatever it may be, takes. Thus, a standing figure may take the place of your vertical line ; the slightly undulating top of the hills behind it may correspond to your horizontal line; a curving group of angels, floating in the air, may suggest your circle; while your, diagonal line may be replaced in the picture by the branches of a tree that spread in a diagonal direction. In other words, what you have done (shall I say ?) stiffly with compasses and straight-edge, the artists do freely and loosely. Yet, I repeat it, underneath this seeming freedom, if you search for it, you will find the basis of a geometric design. This I hope to show you in the following chapter. Mean while, there is another use for contrast that you should know.
It is the contrast between the light and the dark parts of a picture. It is employed, in the first place, to make the objects in the picture look more real. If you fix your eyes on any object in the room or out of doors, you will observe that some parts of it are light and some dark, and that there are various degrees of lightness and darkness. It is the light on an object that enables us to see it. If there were no light on it—if it were in complete darkness, that is to say—nothing would be visible. And, while it is the light that enables us to see the object, it is the degree of light on some parts of it and the various degrees of darkness on others that enable us to realize the shape of it. In other words, the contrast of light and dark, received by the eyes, communicates to our brain the sense of form and bulk.
That it should do so seems to be the gradual result of a habit, unconsciously acquired. Those who study such things tell us that we began to perceive things, not through the sense of sight, but by the sense of touch. The baby reaches out its little hand to feel for the mother's breast; it burrows its way to her warm body; is comforted by the feel of her arms around it. When the child is older and you present her with a doll, you may be disappointed that she does not at once show pleasure. Instead of her face lighting up with joy, as you hoped it would, she stares at the doll in rather a dull way. But presently she stretches out her hands, and takes the doll into them and begins to feel it all over, and at length clasps it in her arms against her body. It is by the sense of touch that she seems to have assured herself that the doll is " real." When she is older, however, if you offer her a new doll, immediately her face lightens with gladness of welcome. For, in the meantime she has learned to know a doll by sight, and now when she gets it into her hands she turns it round and round that she may look at it, patting the face, however, and the dress, and lifting up the lace of the petticoats and handling the sash, because, although she has grown to recognize things by her sense of sight, she has not lost her delight in the sense of touch. Nor will she, I hope, as she grows older. In-deed, artists, knowing how much pleasure people derive from the feel of things, take great pains, as we shall see in another chapter, to paint the surfaces, or, as they suggest it, the texture of objects, in such a way as to make us feel how pleasant it would be to touch them. Besides, it makes the figure seem so much more real, if they suggest to us that, if we touched the face, it would feel like flesh; or, if we could pass our hand over the dress, it would seem soft and mossy like velvet, or smooth and polished like satin.
But, to return to the contrast of light and dark. Although it is by this contrast that we get an impression of the form or bulk of an object, most people are not aware of the fact. They have grown up in the habit of recognizing things by sight, without being conscious of how they do so. They just see things. Artists, however, have had to learn the reason and how to apply it to painting.
The history of modern painting extends back about six hundred years. In the thirteenth century, the paintings which decorated some of the churches in Italy were painted in what is called a conventional way. That is to say, a certain custom was followed by all the painters. They represented the heads and hands of their figures, but the bodies were covered with draperies, under which there was little or no suggestion of any form or bulk. For the whole figure appeared flat. It was as if you should make a little figure of clay or paste, and then pass a roller over it, until its thickness is flattened down into nothing but length and breadth. The figures, in fact, gave no appearance of being real and lifelike because, as artists would say, there was no drawing in them. There was nothing to suggest that the figures had real bodies.
By degrees, however, people grew tired of these unlifelike figures, and a painter named Giotto (1266 ?-1337) became the leader of a new motive in painting. It was simply to try and make the figures look real and the scenes in which they appeared seem naturaL Instead of following a convention, he used his eyes and studied nature. He was no longer satisfied to fill in the background of his picture with a flat gold tint as the conventional painters had done. He wished to increase the reality of his figures by representing them in real surroundings, sometimes in a room, sometimes out of doors. Instead of being content to make his pictures fiat, representing only length and breadth, he set to work to create the suggestion of the third dimension—depth. He would try and make you feel that you could walk from the foreground of his picture, step by step, through to the background; and that, as you reached each figure or object in the scene, you could pass your hand round it and feel that it had real bulk. I said " step by step " and I lay stress on it. For what Giotto tried to represent was not merely some figures in front and then a big gap that you had to jump over before you reached the background, but what the artists call the " successive planes " of the scene—the step-by-step appearance of the scene.
Perhaps you will grasp better what this means if, when you next go to the theater, you carefully observe the scenery, representing some outdoor effect. On each side of the stage, very likely representing tree trunks, there is a series of " wings," one behind another at a distance of say five feet, while across the stage, hanging down from the " flies," is a series of cut cloths, representing foliage, that correspond with the wings and seem to be branches of the tree trunks. Well, these cloths and their wings correspond to the " successive planes " of a picture. They lead gradually back and you can actually walk in and out of them. But, when you reach the back cloth, you are stopped, so far as your legs are concerned. If you are sitting in the auditorium, how-ever, your eye goes traveling on and on a long distance, for the back cloth is itself a picture, in which there is an illusion of successive planes.
The artist's word for representing the successive planes is perspective. If you stand between the rails of a trolley line or railroad and look along it, the lines seem to draw together or converge. Yet in reality you know that they are equidistant from each other all the way along. But, since our power of seeing becomes less and less as objects are farther removed from us, so to our diminishing sight the size and distinctness of the space between the rails appears also to- diminish. In the same way you will observe that the width of the street seems to diminish, and the people and' wagons appear smaller and smaller, according as they are seen farther and farther back in the successive planes. The houses, too —you know that if you, stood in front of any of the houses, exactly facing it, the upright sides would appear to be, as they are, of equal height, and that the windows and cornice would appear in parallel horizontal lines. Yet, as you stand in the street and look along the houses on either side, they pre-sent a different apppearanee. In the case of each house the upright side, nearer to you, seems higher than the one farther off, and the rows of windows and the line of the cornice appear to slope downward. For the houses as they take their places in the receding or successive planes seem to diminish in size.
This, you see, is another example of what we have already said, that the artist does not paint what he knows to be facts, but' the appearances, as he sees them from the point where his eyes are—his " point of sight." You remember how in an earlier chapter that artist represented, 'or rather suggested the cows in the distance by a few dabs. That was how he saw them from his point of sight. I could not tell you then, but you will understand now, that he was obeying the law of perspective, and was representing the cows as they appeared in their own proper plane of the scene. Do you remember that when he drew in their horns and tails and other details, they looked like toy cows? We can now see why. They contradicted their surroundings; they no longer were at home in their own plane; their plane was a good way off, but they were represented as if close to our eyes; and, as we saw how small they were, they seemed to us like toy cows.
You see, it is entirely a matter of how things look to the eyes. The painter, as I have said, does not represent the facts as he knows them to be, but the impressions which the facts make upon his eyesight; and these impressions, by the way in which he renders them, he hands on to us. His picture is not nature, but a suggestion or illusion of nature.
Now, although Giotto had dicovered that, to make you feel that you could walk back through his pictures, he must represent the successive planes, he only partly found out how to do it. It was not until nearly a hundred years later that a painter named Masaccio learned how to fill the whole of his picture with a suggestion of atmosphere, so that the objects took their places properly in their proper planes, and it was still later before artists thoroughly worked out the methods of perspective.
The greatest difficulty that they had to surmount was how to " foreshorten " their figures, or represent them in " foreshortening." A simple way of understanding what this means is to stand in front of a mirror and stretch out your arms to left and right, like the arms of a cross. Each extends a long way. But now bring them in front of you and stretch them toward the mirror. At once they look shorter, or at any rate you cannot see their length. They appear foreshortened. Or you may practice a still more " violent" example of foreshortening, if you are able to place the mirror where you can see your body, when lying down with the feet toward it, for now the whole length of the body appears foreshortened in the mirror. The surface of the latter, you observe, corresponds exactly with the surface of a picture. It is a flat plane upon which is produced the appearance of successive or receding planes, and though you cannot see the length of your body because it is foreshortened, you are made to feel its length.
It was a long time before artists overcame the difficulty of representing this effect; and the first pictures in which it was accomplished were naturally regarded as wonders. Since it is not the purpose of this book to teach you to draw I will mention only one of the principles involved. It is the one we have already been discussing—the contrast of light and dark, or, as it is called, " chiaroscuro." Artists soon discovered that, if an object has bulk, that part of it which is nearest to the light will reflect most light ; the parts less near, less light; while the parts that are exposed to no light will appear dark. As this was how the artists saw the objects, it was so they tried to represent them. They learned to " model " the object, that is to say, to represent it as having bulk, by reproducing in their pictures the contrasts of light and dark. At first the contrasts were crude, chiefly of the very light and very dark, but by degrees the artists became more skillful and learned to represent also all the varying gradations of less light and less dark. By this time they were better able to surmount the difficulty of foreshortening.
You will see how, if you will again stand in front of the mirror and stretch out one arm toward it. The simplest test is made, if you can arrange that the light shall be directly at your back, for then it is reflected by the mirror on to the front of you. In this case you will notice that your outstretched hand receives the most light, because it is nearest to the light. If it were represented in this way in a picture, our habit of seeing the highest or brightest light on the highest or most directly exposed surface of an object would make us feel that the hand projected in front of the body.
If, however, you stand before the mirror with light falling upon you from one side, the picture in the mirror will be quite different in appearance. The light and shadow will be more broken up and diversified. Some part of your hand, it may be simply the edges of the fingers, will catch a high light, even if it is not the highest; and light probably will fall on your forearm, between the wrist and elbow, and again upon the upper part of the arm. Broadly speaking, your arm presents three planes of form the hand, the forearm, and the upper arm. And, though to your untrained eye the light on all of these planes may seem the same, to an artist's eye it would vary according to the angle at which the light hits the plane, or, as the artist himself would say, according to the angle of the plane. These angles vary all over the figure, as you may be able to see if you ex-amine your picture in the mirror. To mention a few, in a general way, there are several angles around each of the shoulders, about the breast, round the neck, while the face, with its projecting nose, its receding eye sockets, its rounded cheeks and so on, presents a regular patchwork of angles of plane. Or shall I say, the whole figure presents a whole multitude of facets like a cut diamond ? Only, unlike the diamond, its facets are uneven in size and irregular in shape. And just as the light on the facets, here very light and elsewhere not so light, informs us of the shape of the diamond, so do these differently lighted angles of plane, when presented in a picture, give us the suggestion of the figure's shape.
And now study the shadows in your mirror picture. They result from the opposite of what we have been talking about. In their case the angles of plane are turned away from instead of toward the light, and some parts, such as the hollows of the folds of your dress or coat, seem to catch no light at all and to be quite dark. I expect you find it much easier to detect the various gradations of dark or shadows than those of the light. And a great many artists, especially in olden times, seem to have seen the shadows more than the lights—for they represent the former with more subtlety, that is to say, with a keener eye for variations, than they do the latter. Indeed, the subtle rendering of light is particularly an accomplishment of modern artists.
Well, if you have carefully studied your portrait in the mirror, I think you must have discovered how large a part the contrast of light and shadow plays in the appearance of the figure, and therefore, what an equally important part it plays in producing an illusion of reality in the picture. I do not forget that an artist by simply drawing an outline with a pen or pencil can also suggest to us the appearance of an object. But, if he does so, it is by the help of ourselves, for he relies on our imagination to supply what he has omitted.
Finally, before we leave the mirror portrait, I should like to ask you in which of the following ways you see it : Do you see it as a bold, simple composition of light and dark ? Or are you conscious of a hundred and one little details about the clothes and face and hair and so on ? The former is what artists call the " broad " way of seeing nature. Many artists see nature in this way and represent in a bold, free, broad manner simply the big general facts. Others, on the other hand, as you may be, are conscious at once of the great variety of details of which the whole is composed, and represent the subject in a highly detailed manner. Neither is the right nor the wrong way. Thousands of fine pictures have been painted in both ways. On the other hand, if you find you grow to like one way more than another, it will be because you yourself, as well as the artist, have the habit of receiving impressions in that way. Do not on that account think other people wrong for receiving impressions differently and therefore preferring the other sort of picture. We cannot help having preferences, but they shouldn't prejudice us against the preferences of others.